Sunday, July 7, 2019

Saturday, July 6, Shabbat in Jerusalem

There is nothing like Shabbat in Jerusalem.  The entire city seems to be taking a break.  There are very few people on the streets, most stores are closed.  It is as if the entire city is taking a collective breath.  There is a peace that we just don’t get in Thousand Oaks.  It is a very different feel than the Shabbat we experienced last week in Tel Aviv.  I love Shabbat in Jerusalem.

As we wake up on our final day of travel together there is an air of excitement as this is the day that our 10 students from TAE will lead a Shabbat service overlooking the Old City and chant the ancient words from our Torah.  We have been preparing for this day for about 5 months now, with individual and group practices to get them comfortable with the service.  We are all exhausted from our travels, and some, including my poor Hayley, are feeling under the weather (side note, today, Sunday, she is feeling much better).  But even these illnesses will not get in the way of our families enjoying perhaps the most unique Shabbat service experience they have ever enjoyed.  Not only are we parents and grandparents bursting with pride that our kids are taking their place as leaders, but we are also overlooking the Old City, and from this point forward when we are in our sanctuary at TAE and Rabbi Diamond has us turn and face east for the Bar’chu, Amida and Aleinu, we will once again be transported back here to Jerusalem, and remember our time at the Western Wall where we laid our hands on this ancient and holy stone, and our kids will remember when they led services in the penthouse of the hotel where they turned and faced the Old City.  Incredible.

Of course, the first order of business was our traditional TAE B’nai Mitzvah Selfie!  This one, without question, included the most people ever!  And someone even got a photo of me taking the selfie.  That is a TAE first!

The service was incredible.  All of our kids did a terrific job and did their families and TAE proud!  I was unable to take photos, and I am trying to include as many of our kids as possible, but these are the only photos I have received so far.  


I am grateful that people chose to take photos of Hayley as she read Torah.  I am so proud of her for being such a terrific leader, in spite of her illness as she was feeling really rotten.  She has made me so proud every step of this trip. 

Following the service, we all went down to a ballroom to enjoy a celebratory Kiddush lunch which included a delicious cake!

After lunch most of the group went with Uri back to the Old City to tour the Christian Quarter and enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, followed by some more shopping time.  I chose to stay at the hotel and be a dad to Hayley.  She really needed the rest.  And to be honest, so did I!  I am grateful to my friend Uri who was able to take the group without me there to take up the caboose. 

In the evening, we loaded the bus for the 20 travelers who would be taking the first flights home and then we gathered with Uri to wrap up our experience here in Israel.  Uri showed us a map and we went over each stop in our epic journey.  It seems like more than 9 days ago, and we covered so much ground, but Uri was quick to tell us that although our days were full, there was so much we were not able to do.  Who knows, maybe we would come back someday together and fill in those gaps.  But Uri also shared that we got a realistic view of Israel, with her triumphs and challenges.  We learned to love her in spite of her shortcomings and to be proud of her many accomplishments.  I was able to thank everyone for coming on this trip and allowing them to have experiences that would shape the rest of their lives.  I shared that we all need to become advocates for Israel, sharing our experiences with the many people who will undoubtedly have questions for us when we return. 

Uri and I then asked the group to share.  We wanted them to share their views of the trip, a special highlight of a moment that they experienced, and what happens next for them as they travel home.  I was so grateful to be able to hear their remarks.  Everyone spoke of how they loved the trip, and, mostly how they loved developing close relationships with those in our traveling group.  Some knew each other well before traveling, others only knew people from our pre-trip gatherings.  But all are leaving Israel with new lifelong friendships.  The kids, who at first separated into small cliques, by the end were one solid group, and are already planning to get together when we are home.  The adults are talking about a reunion party where we can share photos and experiences together and remember when we were in Israel.  Everyone spoke about the importance of Uri, our educator.  I cannot stress enough how incredible he is as a teacher.  He brought Israel to life for each of us in our own special way.  He connected with every person on the trip, from our youngest traveler (Eli, age 3 and a half) to the oldest.  Everyone is leaving Israel with a new friend in Uri, and I am grateful for the chance to have worked with him again.  I hope to continue to build on our friendship and hope to see him in Thousand Oaks at TAE soon.  And I hope to be able to experience Israel with him again, soon, as our educator.

After almost an hour of sharing, we did our final act as a traveling family.  We celebrated Havdallah, officially ending Shabbat.  But for me, this was a different kind of Havdallah.  Instead of focusing on separating the holiness of Shabbat from the not-yet-holiness of the rest of the week, I chose to focus on separating the holiness of this trip from the not-yet-holiness of the rest of our lives.  And just like we bring the sweet taste of wine and the smell of spices with us to remember the sweetness of Shabbat, we used these items to bring with us back home to remember the sweetness and holiness of this trip.  As we sang the music with our arms wrapped around each other it was incredibly emotional for me.  For two years I have worked on this trip, hoping it would be a transformative one for the people who trusted in me enough to come along.  It was a total labor of love, and I am so grateful for these travelers.  I shared with them that there were special moments with each one of them during our journey.  And I can’t wait to share that glance at TAE, knowing what we experienced together here in our home in the east.  And…  I can’t wait to start planning our next trip.  I encourage you all to consider a TAE communal trip to Israel.  We are already working on a family trip for June of 2021. 

And now, for Hayley and me, we get to go on a little vacation to London to experience all she has to offer in terms of Harry Potter.  The highlight will be Thursday, where we get to see Sara Kirby and her husband Tony.  Sara is the cousin of Hayley’s Holocaust Twin, Hermi van Hasselt.  We have developed a close relationship with Sara through the years since Carly’s bat mitzvah (where Carly twinned with Hermi’s younger sister, Sophia).  It will be so nice to spend some time with her and share about how meaningful Hermi helped to make Hayley’s bat mitzvah.  I will try to update the blog after this meeting.  Until then, thank you all for coming along this trip with us.  I hope you got a taste of what traveling to Israel might be like, and I hope to take YOU and your family here one day soon.

L’hitraot Israel, until we meet again.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Friday, July 5, Into the Desert, Masada and the Dead Sea

Today was a great day!  This morning was our earliest departure of the entire trip.  We were on the bus at 6:45 am to make our way from Jerusalem into the Dead Sea Basin (the lowest point on earth at almost 1400 feet below sea level) and headed towards Masada, Herod’s mountain palace and the site of the Jewish Zealot’s last stand against the Roman Legionnaires.  We left so early because, being in the middle of the desert, Masada is gets very hot and it is important for us to get to the top of the mountain early in order to try to beat the intense afternoon heat. 

We ascended the mountain by cable car and gathered under an awning while Uri shared with us the history of this place. 

There are two stories that define Masada.  The first is the fact that King Herod had this place built as a mountain retreat for himself.  But there is much more to this story.  He had enough water and food storage to sustain a thousand people for YEARS, meaning it would also be a place where he could go if he were in trouble and needed to be kept safe.  Enough water for years?  Uri explained how water was collected on the mountain, through a system of canals that would take the water of the rare flash floods and divert them to the many cisterns on the mountain.  He also had multiple food storage facilities on the mountain as well.  He was definitely planning on spending a lot of time here. 

Uri then walked us to the Northern Palace, Herod’s personal quarters.  There is quite a view from here, and it took advantage of the extended shade that would come as the sun moved during the day, keeping the king as comfortable as possible. 

We also toured the Bath House, and much like all Roman bath houses, this was decked out to the nines.  We saw remnants of the tile floor in the room where they entered…

And then the hottest room with the elevated floor where the hot air was pumped into the steam room.  We noticed the curved ceiling that would prevent the water droplets from dripping on the guests.

It really is an incredible place.  This is where the first part of the history of Masada stops and Uri began to weave the story of the second part of Masada’s history.  During the Roman conquest at around 70 CE, a group of Jewish Zealots escaped Jerusalem and made their way into the Desert for safety.  They brought their families, 960 people in all, and went up to Masada where they were amazed to find enough food and water to sustain them.  Of course, the Romans followed suit and went to capture the Zealots.  And when they got there, they created encampments around the base of Masada and waited.  They knew that the food and water supply would run short and the Jewish Zealots would be forced to come down the mountain.  They had no idea that there was so much food and water already there. 

Here are the ruins of some of the storage facilities on Masada.  Uri shared that they found date pits in a jug and were able to grow a new date tree!  Amazing.

As the siege went on the Romans began to build a ramp to come up and forcibly take Masada.  This is when the story becomes somewhat of a myth.  We do not know if this actually happened, as we have only one source that describes the events of the end of the siege of Masada, and it was written by a Jew who joined the Romans and became the   for the Roman leadership, and we do not know how accurate his information is.  But the story seems to make sense.  The Jews had a few choices.  They could fight, but that would mean certain death and while the Zealots were willing to do this, how could they ask their children, some infants to try to fight?  And if they died in battle, what good would they be to their children then?  They could give up and turn themselves in, but this would certainly mean a life of bitter slavery that would be a fate worse than death.  They could sneak down the mountain and avoid capture, but then what?  They would be in the middle of the desert and would not be able to carry enough supplies to sustain their families.  The last choice was to choose to die on their terms, as free Jews rather than at the hands of the Romans.  Uri took us to the synagogue atop Masada where they could have discussed these options.

Today, in the synagogue at Masada there is an air-conditioned room where a Sofer writes Torah scrolls.  It is so great that we could see this room because as a bat mitzvah gift, one of our dear friends purchased a letter in a Masada Torah in Hayley’s honor.  How terrific she could see the room where her letter would be written.

Uri then took us to the foundation of the ramp built by the Romans to get their troops to the top of Masada where he shared with us what the source says happened. 

After careful consideration, it was decided that the Jews would choose to die on their own terms.  And the killing began.  The men would kill their families in the most painless way possible.  Then the elders would kill all the men.  Then the elders drew lots to see who would be the one to kill all the elders and finally fall on his own sword.  It is a horrible ending to the story.

I cannot imagine the agony of having to make such a horrible decision and would not be able to execute this particular choice.  I watched Hayley as Uri shared the story and could not fathom placing her in this kind of position.  It was a horrible time for sure.  But Masada, today, has come to mean something different for Israelis.  There is a saying that Masada will not fall again, which is a rallying cry for Israel to make sure that she remains a strong military force that can defend herself against all enemies.  Uri brought us back to the war for independence, the 6 Day War and the Yom Kippur War, where there were no options other than victory.  Israel will not fall again.  Uri also shared that while it is important to understand the questions regarding the validity of the facts, it is also important to acknowledge what was perhaps necessary at a time, when the people of Israel needed such stories to push them to victory against all odds.  It was perhaps this mantra that allowed us to stand strong in the breach.  It is also important to recognize, that as a nation matures, we can also re-harness the story of Masada and its outcome and challenge ourselves by asking what is it we do to ensure Jewish continuity. 

We went back down the mountain and headed over to the Dead Sea for lunch and some much needed relaxation floating in the lowest point on earth.  Uri shared with us that the waters are receding at about a meter a year, and unless steps are taken to reverse this (water was damned at the Kinneret, which supplied 90% of the inflow to the Dead Sea), it will eventually disappear.  He also shared that Jordan and Israel are starting to work on a plan to pipe in water from the Red Sea to try to stop the water line from getting lower.

After a good shower back at the hotel, we went to celebrate Shabbat with a local Reform community, Kehillat Tzur Haddassah and their Rabbi Stacey Blank. 

I have brought 2 other groups to Rabbi Stacey’s services and they are always so welcoming to us.  Rabbi Stacey invited our 10 b’nai mitzvah kids to come up and light the candles.  It was quite an honor, and so nice for me to share a service sitting with Hayley in the congregation rather than being on the bima.

Following services, the congregation hosted us for a communal Shabbat dinner where we got to talk with local residents about life in Israel.  It was an enlightening evening of community and terrific food.  The kids started a huge soccer game in the garden.  What a terrific night!

This was the longest day of the trip.  We left the hotel at 6:45 am and ended our day at about 10 pm.  We are all exhausted but exhilarated for our final day in Israel together.